Monday, April 16, 2007

The Outlook of Mankind

Here's an extract from 'The Work, Wealth & Happiness of Mankind' by H.G. Wells:

Uncertainties in the Human Outlook

Let us before we conclude devote a section to the possibility that this human adventure will fail. We have no guarantee against many sorts of cosmic disaster. There is the risk, an infinitesimal but real risk, of meteoric bodies hurtling through our system, bodies so large and coming so near to us as to destroy our planet as a home for life. So remote is such a mischance that Sir James Jeans can dismiss it as negligible. If the lot falls against us in spite of the odds, there is nothing to be said or done. Fate will end the story.

But other sinister possibilities, less catastrophic but in the end as decisive, are not so easily dismissed. We still know very little of the secular changes of climate, and it is conceivable that in quite a few years, in a hundred thousand or a thousand thousand, that is to say, this planet may be returning to a phase of widespread glaciation, or temperature may be rising to universal tropical and ultra-tropical conditions. Within the sun, for all we know, explosive forces are brewing - or on our earth itself - to heat or chill or shatter. Or again, if steady urgencies of upheaval and disturbance are not still astir under the feet of our race, the rains and rivers and waves will presently wear down our mountains and hills and flatten out our lands until one monotonous landscape of plains of exhausted soil and swamps and lagoons of tepid water has replaced the familiar scenery of our time. Or if these terrestrial tensions increase, our race will pass into a period of volcanic violence and earthquakes, forces from within breaking loose to thrust up new mountain chains and giving fresh directions to wind and sea current, and beyond adjustment.

Here plainly we are still under the sway of the Fates. Presently we may be able to foretell; later we may even control such fluctuations, but certainly the sun and planets and our little globe have their own motions and changes regardless of our needs and desires. The cards as they are played are being swept up for a fresh deal. The hand our race must play to-morrow may be very different from the hand we play to-day. There are no fixed conditions to human life, and if this new-born world community of ours is to go on through vast periods of time, man will have to be for ever guessing new riddles. Will he be able to get so far with his science as map out at length in their due order all the coming throws of the planetary roulette? Or get a mastery of the wheel? There will have to be an encyclopedia of knowledge for such feats as that, vaster than anything we can dream of to-day. There will have to be a mightier sort of man, very marvellously educated, and perhaps by virtue of an advancing science of eugenics innately better, to do things on that scale.

Such are the difficulties and problems for our descendants, that must slowly develop themselves age by age, even if they solve the riddles of our present civilization. But will mankind ever solve these immediate problems? There was recently published a very suggestive and amusing book by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men. It is an imaginary history upon an astronomical scale of the future of humanity, a grimly cheerful mixture of biology, burlesque and satire. He sees our present species blundering through some further great wars and unified at last under American rule into one world state, a world state of a harshly plutocratic type which undergoes an entirely incredible moral and intellectual degeneration and ends in a new Dark Age. Homo sapiens is then practically exterminated by a catastrophe he has himself provoked, and only a few individuals survive obscurely to become the progenitors of two species of Homo who presently increase and come into conflict. The remoter speculations of Mr. Stapledon about the succession of latter Hominidae and their final extinction, vivid and amusing though they are, and stimulating as they will prove to those unversed in biological and cosmological possibilities, need not be discussed here. But the nearer issues he broaches do pose very disturbingly the considerable probability of a failure in our contemporary civilization to anticipate and prevent fresh world warfare and an economic crash. I see that possible economic crash nearer and larger and more important that he does, as a greater menace, indeed, than the militant nationalism from which it arises. But I believe in human sanity more than he does, I believe that that widely diffused will and understanding which I have termed "open conspiracy" may be strong enough to carry the race through the economic stresses ahead of us, and to delay, minimize and finally repulse the onset of war.

There has been a great quickening of the general intelligence about political and economic life in recent years, and the man of action and the man of thought have been drawn nearer together. There may be some dark chapters in human history still to be written, and provisional governments and a mightier Judge Lynch may figure in the drama. The forces that will carry on, develop and realize the abounding promise of our present civilization are by no means sure of victory; they may experience huge and tragic set-backs; but the balance of probability seems to be largely in their favour. If they win out, it will be men of our own kind, better, according to our present values, but men still - not beings specifically different and beyond our sympathy - who with a whole planet organized for the conflict will face greater problems, the long-period problems of terrestrial and cosmic changes which advance upon us behind the skirmishing dangers of to-day.

But nothing is certain. Men may breed and bicker too long, be overtaken by some swift universal epidemic they have had no time to arrest, perish of a phosphorous famine, or be destroyed by some war machine they have had the ability to invent but not the intelligence to control. In the Mesozoic Age great reptiles multiplied and dominated the earth, and suddenly they passed away. In the Miocene flourished countless varieties of huge mammals, now altogether extinguished. Why should we suppose that we are specially favoured items in the spectacle of existence. Millions of us are wearied, chased about, heartbroken, wounded and killed, for no evident good, in war; millions are destroyed by accidents without apparent reason or justice; beasts of prey in India and Africa slay and eat their thousands of "man the master" every year; millions die in unalleviated pain through a multitude of cruel diseases. Is there any difference in quality between one single case of a dear human being killed by cancer and the murder of a world? It is simply a difference of numbers and scale. If the universe can kill a child unjustly, so it can kill a race or a planet unjustly. If so many individual lives end tragically, why should not the whole species end tragically?

We may say, "It shall not", but what weight have such words?